So... maybe I'm not as done talking about Professor Kuspit as, at first, I thought. I'm reading his book, The End of Art, which is very interesting. I'd like to discuss a point he raises, but given my absolutely crap track record for interpreting him correctly, let me say that any text not actually in quotation marks does not necessarily represent Kuspit's thinking. Even if I say it does. Just take it with a grain of salt, is all I'm saying.
Kuspit devotes a lot of time and energy to having it out with Marcel Duchamp. Duchamp, you may remember, is the fellow who gave us this:
That's the "readymade," the famous urinal converted - presto - into art on Duchamp's say-so. It's been all downhill for art since then, basically. Here's what caught my eye in Kuspit's discussion:
"Clearly the readymade has a double meaning. It is a conundrum, a Gordian knot that no intellectual sword can cut. Simultaneously an art and non-art object, the readymade has no fixed identity. Regarded as art, it spontaneously reverts to non-art. It collapses into banality the moment the spectator takes it seriously as art, and becomes serious art the moment the spectator dismisses it as a banal object. Just as the spectator critically reacts to it, thinking about and looking at it in a more creative way than he thinks about and looks at non-art objects, it becomes one of those non-art objects. The readymade always outsmarts the spectator, outwitting his interpretation of it ... it...remains indecipherable. It is absurd..."
Now, there's nothing I like more than an ontologically ambiguous phenomenon! And who doesn't, really? Sometime, we'll talk about De Chirico. But not today.
Frankly, I had never given much thought to Duchamp's readymades before, because basically, it's a goddamn urinal, so who cares? I had never experienced this frisson of the irresolvable that Kuspit describes. But his description of this particular frisson was immediately familiar. He describes an object which, when contemplated, triggers an endless oscillation between two unstable states, the acceptance of either of which immediately causes a collapse of the state and a recoil to the opposed state. Why is that familiar? Because it is exactly the same frisson triggered by the following sentence:
This statement is a lie.
Think about it for a second, you'll see what I mean.
The urinal dates to 1917. The sentence comes to our attention in 1931. It is the plain-language example of Kurt Gödel's first incompleteness theorem. Imagine a theory, called T. A slightly less plain-language version of the statement is called "sentence G for the theory T," or the Gödel sentence:
G cannot be proved to be true within the theory T.
The incompleteness theorem is a devastating discovery which effectively ended a program, championed by Bertrand Russell, David Hilbert, and the adorable Gottlob Frege, to put mathematics on a really solid footing by finally demonstrating the completeness and consistency of certain absolutely necessary and fundamental mathematical propositions.
"Completeness" and "consistency" have special meanings here. A "complete" system is capable only of generating statements that can be proved or disproved inside the system. A "consistent" system is incapable of generating statements that can be both proved and disproved in the system. Got that?
1. Completeness: capable of generating only statements that can be either proved or disproved within the system
2. Consistent: incapable of generating statements that can be both proved and disproved within the system
For the system of fundamental mathematics to live up to the hopes of Russell, Hilbert, and Frege, it must be both complete and consistent. What Gödel does is to prove that *no* system capable of generating a theory of fundamental mathematics can be both complete and consistent. If it is complete, it is inconsistent. If it is consistent, it is incomplete.
Incidentally, you haven't missed how Gödel proves this, because I haven't described it here. It's fiendishly complicated and involves a lot of notation that you'd probably be happier not knowing. It's a short book, if you're really interested. A short book, but if you're anything like me, a long fricking read.
What's interesting for our purposes here is that Kuspit's description of his experience of looking at Duchamp's urinal is categorically identical with the experience of looking at the deadly Gödel sentence. Given that, let us entertain for a moment the possibility that the Duchamp urinal is a Gödel sentence. Wow! What would that mean?
It would mean that art, when looked at from a certain perspective, can be functionally considered to be a formal system of logic. It would mean that the urinal is a statement, consistent with the language of this system, which makes an assertion that is undecidable within the system.
Well, what is the character of this system? And what assertion is the urinal making?
A system is a set: it is a set of axioms and theorems. One really important property of sets is that they should define what they include and don't include. How is the set defined? This property, the formation of the boundary of the set, allows the analyst to distinguish between relevant and irrelevant phenomena when conducting an analysis of the set. For instance, "1 + 1 = 2" is an important member of the set of fundamental mathematics. "Meow" is not.
In the art context, defining the boundaries of the set amounts to answering the question: What is art?
Whoa! Holy shit! The big question!
What Duchamp has done, in proposing the urinal as a work of art by signing it, is to point out a contradiction implicit in the set of axioms which underlie the definition of art. Axioms are statements taken to be true (though not proven) at the base of a logical system. Good axiom selection involves picking axioms that generate a minimum number of inconsistent results (theorems).
Well, art has a little axiom problem with its boundary definition. Duchamp has figured out that we have at least two axioms determining the boundary of the set we call art:
Axiom 1: "Art" consists of that set of human-produced objects which use aesthetic means to produce some kind of enlightening transformation in the viewer.
Axiom 2: "Art" consists of that set of objects produced by people called "artists" who come up to you and tell you that the thing they just made is "art."
Feel free to re-interpret axiom 1 as you like, depending on your personal tastes. Axiom 2 you'd have a hard time arguing with in any consistent way.
Duchamp, noticing the not-necessarily-identical outputs of axiom 1 and axiom 2, has gone ahead and generated an object which, under axiom 1, is "not-art," and under axiom 2, is "art." Because both axioms are deeply and viscerally active to the modern art viewer, Duchamp's object produces a sense of rapid and unstable oscillation between art and non-art states, as described by Kuspit: it is a contradictory object, a basilisk, a Gödel sentence.
Any artist could have done this at any time, because this problem has always existed in art and is intuitively obvious to any working artist. But before Duchamp, there had kind of been a tacit agreement among artists not to be a total dick about it. Functionally speaking, the artists would exploit axiom 2, while ensuring that they did their best not to violate axiom 1.
Duchamp's innovation lies not in his insight, but in the audacity of his barbarity. Just because you're the first rapist doesn't mean nobody thought of committing rape before. They just had the sense not to do it. Duchamp's program is not constructive, in the sense of seeking to highlight logical problems in order to point a way toward resolving them, as best as possible. His program is destructive; he highlights problems in order to wreck trust in the relevant system. In so doing, he discredits everything previously generated by the system, and shuts down subsequent use of the system.
In a sense, it is a salutary effect, because it forces us from the age of naive art-making to the age of willful art-making, with regard to that aspect of art which corresponds with a logical system. You might call the urinal one of my prime numbers, even though it is not, in itself, productive. And you would do well not to forget this: art is not a logical system.
However, the logical system aspect of art is obviously an important part of it, and since the urinal, a good deal of speculation on the axiomatic problem - What is art? - has gone on. I myself am not particularly a philosophical purist, so I like Roger Kimball's rough-and-ready solution to the problem:
"...the real issue is not whether a given object or behavior qualifies as art but rather whether it should be regarded as good art. In other words, what we need is not definitional ostracism but informed and robust criticism."
(p. 53, Art's Prospect)
You see what he does here? He demotes Axiom 1 - the "aesthetics and transformation" axiom - from its status as a definer of boundaries. He leaves only axiom 2 to define the set of objects called "art." But having done so, he immediately re-applies axiom 1 as an axiom, not of definition, but of criticism.
That works for me, but I tell you what. I described this idea to my wife, Charlotte, who is nothing if not skeptical, and she said, "That's really begging the question, isn't it? I mean, if you want to focus on what good art is, you're presupposing an answer to the question of what art is, aren't you?"
More on Charlotte's opinions soon. In the meantime, here's a huge-ass painting I just finished that I am very happy with, because any time you get to use a lot of cobalt blue, you can't help walking away happy: